Ode to Coach Busken

Bernie Busken may have gone too far in toughening his players. More likely, the world around him no longer goes far enough.

I just slapped my 5-year-old on the head. He wasn't wearing a helmet. He stumbled a bit from the blow.

He squared up again like some tough guy, so I thumped him in the gut.

Call Child Protective Services. Call the principal and superintendent. Quit the team, call a parents' meeting. I'm Bernie Busken, defrocked coach at Mountain View High School, all over again. And I'm just about to do it again.

Rand Carlson

Yeah, sure, I actually pulled the punches, made them just hard enough to let the boy feel the next level of competition — the strength of a really weak kindergartner. And the slap was a barehanded pat during one of the faux karate matches he begs of me, but let's not get technical or fiddle with context.

It's all abuse. It's all violence. His laughter is sublimated agony. Physical scars can heal, Arizona Republic sportswriter turned feminist poet Pedro Gomez reminds us, but emotional scars last forever.

A World War II vet on my paper route who occasionally needed surgery because lodged shrapnel from a Japanese grenade would work its way into his spine disagreed with the Republic's beret-wearing Gomez. He said that, actually, the guys who got blown to bone meal around him would, if they weren't dead, argue that sticks and stones and grenades really are more painful than words.

Has anyone noticed that football is an extremely violent sport?

Has anyone noticed that Americans still worship men who show no fear in battle? Who run up stairs in burning buildings that are falling down? Who run, with evil intent, full speed the length of a football field at a guy running full speed in the opposite direction? Who find ways to win?

Does anyone still know how to get a large group of 21st-century American teens into the mindset in which they work their hardest and have no fear? Is it still possible?

I don't know how to do it. I can barely get my boys away from Nintendo to eat hot dogs.

Bernie Busken, the absurdly successful coach of the Mountain View High School football team, apparently knew how to do it. And, as coach of the state's premier high school football program, he was under immense pressure from parents and administrators to do it year after year.

So he did it his way and now he's gone, another old-school casualty of whiny, callow suburban kids and their duplicitous and incessantly meddling parents.

Busken said mean things. He once told a player he knew the kid was going to fail him (the kid did fail him, by the way). He drilled too hard. He grabbed facemasks and slapped kids on the helmet to get their attention (again, what sport is this?). He allowed some Mountain View hazing rituals to continue, rituals, I might add, that were one-tenth as painful as anything even the kicker endures from opponents on the field.

Still, Busken was clearly an asshole.

Like Jesse Parker before him, like Frank Kush at Arizona State University and hundreds of other coaches across the country who emerged from small towns or rough neighborhoods with mentors forged by the Depression and two world wars, Busken believed that mental and physical toughness is built through ferocious trial.

These guys were all assholes.

I lament the extermination of assholes.

And I am, like many fathers and coaches in modern America, profoundly confused about how hard to drive my boys toward the mental and physical toughness I believe they'll need to be happy and successful in this sometimes brutal world.

I have made my 9-year-old jog two miles with me for not cleaning his room. I have denied him Nintendo until he finished extra-credit homework and took a shot at doing three sets of 20 pushups, which he had done easily in wrestling two years before. I've grounded him for two weeks after watching him ignore his mother three times in 10 minutes.

He is a smart, strong kid who is doing well, and I tell him so with what I think is regularity. He most often acts like he's elated when I come home.

Still, one day I'm confident that I've helped make him good and that I'm a good dad; the next I'm sure I'm the dad I promised I'd never be.

There are two kinds of assholes, some of America's top coaches will tell you. There is the asshole who loves kids and is rough only toward the goal of making young men overachieve in battle. Cruel to be kind, tough love.

You hate these assholes during the season, then love them for the rest of your life. Most of the worthwhile men I know had a figure like this in their lives.

Then there is the sadistic, megalomaniacal asshole who brutalizes only to assert control and to win. Most of the worthwhile men I know take pride in having survived somebody like this in their lives.

I believe either type of asshole coach is still a win-win for teens.

The vote is still out on what kind of asshole Bernie Busken is.

Charlie McBride, Sun Devils offensive line coach under Frank Kush and, later, 19-year defensive coordinator for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, is widely considered to be one of those caring, compassionate assholes.

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